During World War II, California and Nevada were not just neighbors in statehood — their namesake battleships fought many a battle alongside one another. The USS Nevada has an especially storied history. Its remains were recently found deep in the Pacific Ocean off of Hawaii.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Nevada was berthed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii with other U.S. Navy battleships while most of her officers and half the crew enjoyed shore leave.
That morning, as the ship’s band played the Star-Spangled Banner on the fantail, the band’s music was interrupted by the sound of bombs, torpedoes, and machine guns as the Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft attacked the resting fleet in waves from carriers miles away.
As it became clear that this was not some kind of drill, the skeleton crews still aboard reacted. Capt. Joseph Taussig ordered a tug to assist the ship in getting out to sea and into battle. The tug came under heavy fire as did any ship moving in the harbor. The courageous Taussig ordered her lines cut and cast off and, with incredible ship handling under withering fire, moved her off her berth and toward the mouth of the port, passing the exploding USS Arizona, the capsized USS Oklahoma, and the burning USS California, which had been struck by two torpedoes shortly after the start of the Japanese raid and was taking on water. Meanwhile, the USS Nevada’s crew manned her main and anti-aircraft guns, taking the fight to the attacking Japanese aircraft.
The Nevada was a capital ship, a type that is typically larger than the other warships in its fleet. Because she was the only such ship underway, the attackers focused on the Nevada as she steamed for the open ocean. The mighty ship was struck by six bombs, at least one torpedo, and thousands of bullets. As she began taking in water through a massive hole in her bow, Taussig realized she’d never make it out and that the Japanese intended to sink her to block the port escape for all of the American ships.
Taussig ordered the Nevada beached away from the deep channel to keep the harbor open. The fury of the attack increased as she stopped and her stern swung away, partially blocking the port entry. The heroic arrival of a little tug, Hoga, saved the effort. Taking heavy fire, the men of the Nevada and the Hoga were able to swing her stern around, suffering heavy losses and damage but saving the port.
Sixty men aboard the USS Nevada were killed and 109 wounded. Two sailors were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; Taussig, along with a dozen others, was awarded the Navy Cross, and he also received the Purple Heart for losing a leg in the battle.
The Nevada’s crew shot down five Japanese aircraft and prevented the Japanese from attacking the largest Allied naval fuel depot in the Pacific, shortening the war.
The California, meanwhile, had been hit by another bomb, which worsened the flooding despite the ship’s being designed to resist underwater damage. The measures proved no match for the torpedoes, however. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the USS California “had steam up and was nearly ready to get underway when a large mass of burning oil, drifting down ‘Battleship Row,’ threatened to set the ship afire. She was ordered abandoned, and, when the crew returned onboard sometime later, it was impossible to control her flooding.” The ship sunk on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the initial attack. Four men aboard USS California that day were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, only one of whom survived the attack.
The United States was drawn into a war it had resisted, even as Britain was bombed and France and much of Europe were overrun by Hitler’s military. The USS Nevada was pulled from the muck, patched, and sailed to Puget Sound to be repaired and refitted. Ready for combat in May 1943, she sailed north to Alaska to provide naval artillery against Japanese troops in the battle of Attu, the only land battle of WWII fought on North American soil.
The Nevada then sailed for the Atlantic, where she provided convoy security against German capital ships. While assigned in the Atlantic, the ship was ordered to provide naval artillery for the top-secret Operation Neptune/Overlord, the D-Day attack on the coast of France. On June 6, 1944, the USS Nevada was cited for the extreme accuracy of her bombardment at Utah Beach. Her aggressive pounding of the tank divisions and enemy artillery positions destroyed 110 tanks and saved countless Allied lives.
Rounding the Cotentin Peninsula off of northwest France, the Nevada was ordered into battle with a giant shore battery, which the Germans were using to shell troops and vessels to devastating effect. Nevada, taking fire and bracketed by shells, nevertheless fired her own guns with pinpoint accuracy, reducing the gun emplacement and causing the German commander to fly the white flag of surrender.
In August 1944, the ship steamed through the Straits of Gibraltar, providing naval artillery in support of landings in the South of France, blasting German gun emplacements, and shelling the French-built battleship Strasbourg, which had been commandeered by the German Navy.
After firing thousands of rounds through her massive 14-inch guns, the Nevada headed for Norfolk, Virginia, to reline her gun barrels and refit.
After a Christmas spent in Long Beach, the USS Nevada rendezvoused in the Pacific with the battleships Idaho and Tennessee. In the early morning of Feb. 17, 1945, the Nevada fired the first salvo at the island of Iwo Jima in preparation for the U.S. Marine attack. Two days later, the morning of the amphibious assault, the Nevada and USS California — which in March 1942 had been raised, repaired, modernized, and put back into service after sinking at Pearl Harbor — shelled targets on the heavily defended island as Marines landed.
As Iwo Jima came under Marine control, the ship was ordered to provide naval artillery support for the invasion of Okinawa. Again paired with the USS Tennessee, Nevada accurately bombarded the island. Attacked by a kamikaze, the ship lost 11 sailors and 49 were wounded, but remained on station, pounding Japanese gun emplacements and engaging with a shore battery, which killed another two of her crew. The Nevada destroyed that gun and several others before being ordered to Pearl Harbor for repair.
Returning to Okinawa, she was assigned to be stationed alongside the USS California. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese surrendered.
In 1946, the Navy decided the ship had fulfilled her mission. The USS Nevada, with 30 years of heroic service, was attacked with atomic bombs for test purposes. She survived both those attacks. The Navy then decided to use her for gunnery practice. Attacked by multiple ships firing hundreds of rounds, she stayed afloat. A final order was given to torpedo the Nevada from the air. The torpedo did what no enemy or atom bomb could do and sent the USS Nevada to her watery grave.
In 1959, after 43 years of service and seven battle stars awarded, the USS California was broken up for scrap. In April 2020, a research vessel found the USS Nevada in over 15,000 feet of water miles off Pearl Harbor. And there she remains, a monument to her namesake state, to the skilled shipbuilders who constructed her, and to the excellent sailors and marines who served so bravely aboard her.